Representing the manosphere
By Finola Laughren
I began my doctoral research on the political effects of feminist representations of the manosphere in 2021. Almost immediately, it became pretty obvious that whether explicitly feminist or not, critical representations associate the manosphere with a distinctly problematic kind of masculinity. In this blog post, I want to focus on what is perhaps less obvious, yet I would argue equally pervasive: the idea that men having an uncertain relationship with masculinity – of any kind – is a problem in itself.
Critical representations of the coagulation of online masculinist subcultures known as the “manosphere” converge and diverge in interesting ways. The convergences are relatively straightforward. Most criticise the manosphere and its four main subgroups – involuntary celibates (“incels”), Men Going Their Own Way (MGTOW), pick-up artists (PUAs), and men’s rights activists (MRAs) – for supporting male supremacy and a patriarchal social order (Ging, 2017). Most also detail how, each in their own ways, these subgroups objectify, instrumentalise, dehumanise and ultimately enact violence towards women – both on- and off-line.
The divergences tend to be more complex and entail different views about how to respond to the manosphere. While some representations highlight the historical continuity between the manosphere and earlier masculinist projects (commonly, the 1980s mythopoetic men’s movement), others emphasise how the manosphere’s emergence is inextricably connected to the financial interests of contemporary mass-media companies like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter (Trott, Beckett & Paech, 2022). Representations of this latter kind involve the claim that mass-media companies have created algorithms specifically designed to suggest increasingly extreme content to young men to keep them online (Massanari, 2017). These representations tend to involve a plea for tighter government regulation of the online sphere.
Related to this, some critical representations consider the manosphere to present either a stand-alone terrorist threat or to be at least implicated in a process whereby young men are exposed at first to relatively mainstream misogynistic ideas, but then ever more extreme sexist, racist, and even fascist ideas (Basu, 2020). These kinds of representations emphasise the relationship between the manosphere and the far-right, and the connections between sexism and racism more broadly (Lewis, 2019; Dickel & Evolvi, 2022). They generally encourage governments to adopt securitisation responses.
Not all critical representations of the manosphere endorse disciplinarity. Some suggest, rather, that the best way to intervene with men who either have become or are at risk of becoming involved in the manosphere is to redirect them – through educational programs or “counter-algorithms” – towards different men’s interests groups that encourage the development of a more positive masculinity (Willingham, 2022). These kinds of representations involve the claim that men of the manosphere are mentally unwell, sad, lonely, alienated or some combination of these, and that they have legitimate grievances – bad social skills, low employment prospects, difficulty at school – that ought to be taken seriously rather than dismissed as merely expressive of male entitlement.
To allow young men to become well-functioning members of society, critical representations suggest a range of interventions, all of which seek to direct these young men away from the problematic masculinity of the manosphere, and towards a clearly defined positive masculinity. Whether or not they explain the manosphere’s draw primarily by reference to the online sphere’s very constitution, to the entangled relationship between sexism and racism, or to a lack of sympathy for men, in each of these critical representations is the notion that men are vulnerable, mouldable, and that they need guidance about what it means to be a man. What is taken for granted, then, is the idea that men need to accomplish masculinity – however defined. Yet critical representations of the manosphere would do well, I think, to expand their frames of reference to consider whether there are benefits – for men themselves, and for women too – that might yield from men lingering in a set of more ambiguous, uncertain relations to masculinity.
Basu, T. (2020). The “manosphere” is getting more toxic as angry men join the incels.
Dickel, V., & Evolvi, G. (2022). “Victims of feminism”: exploring networked misogyny and# MeToo in the manosphere. Feminist Media Studies, 1-17.
Ging, D. (2017). Alphas, betas, and incels: Theorizing the masculinities of the manosphere. Men and masculinities, 22(4), 638-657.
Lewis, H. (2019). To Learn About the Far Right, Start With the “Manosphere”. The Atlantic, 7, 1-5.
Massanari, A. (2017). # Gamergate and The Fappening: How Reddit’s algorithm, governance, and culture support toxic technocultures. New media & society, 19(3), 329-346.
Trott, V., Beckett, J., & Paech, V. (2022). Operationalising ‘toxicity’ in the manosphere: Automation, platform governance and community health. Convergence, 28(6), 1754-1769.
Willingham, AJ. (2022). Misogynistic influencers are trending right now. Defusing their message is a complex task.